Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Teaching Thursday: Interviews

Teaching the ancient-to-medieval half of the art history survey, I experimented with narratives that connect the past to the present. Namely, I complemented the linear historical coverage with discussion topics from contemporary art/life in the form of homework assignments and class discussion. For instance, when studying Stonehenge, I had the students respond to a sculpture by Darrell Petit located at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum on campus. When covering Minoan art, we considered Damien Hirst's unprecedented Sotheby's auction this Fall. Hirst's Golden Calf was sold for $18 million. I challenged the students to consider whether its value depended on the historical understanding of the Minotaur. A bull rhyton from Knossos illustrated in our textbook (Janson's, 7th ed., p. 90) gives value to the modern piece and in strange postmodern sense, the teaching of the survey enriches Hirst's purse. When considering the civic role of the Greek kouros (using Andy Stewart's interpretation of war and eros), we compared it to Suzanne Opton's project Soldier + Citizen. Or, when studying classical architecture, we analyzed the Lincoln Memorial, the Democratic National Convention and the relationship between the Doric Order and Barack Obama's presidential campaign. The last was discussed on this blog, see "Democratic Classicism" (Aug. 30, 2008), "Republican Flag" (Sept. 4, 2008), and "Architectural Wars," (Sept. 6, 2008). This proved to be one case where my blog entered into my teaching; the blog, essentially became class material. When we studied Roman portraiture, I had the students interpret each other's photographs, asking them to criticize the artificial iconography of even photographic portraits (including Facebook profiles). The new edition of Janson's History of Art (2007) makes some of these connections directly. For example, Andy Warhol (Gold Marilyn Monroe, 1962) is juxtaposed with Byzantium (Vladimir Virgin, 12th c.) in the Introduction (p. xxii). The conceptual link between the ancient-medieval and the Renaissance-modern halves of the survey is an issue that I have discussed at lenght with Andrea Feeser, my colleague at Clemson University. We had begun reorganizing the teaching of the survey along such diachronic lines. Originally, I had hoped to blog about these experiments, but I never found the time. Frankly, carrying out the class itself took all my energy and creativity. Many of these assignments were not planned until the last minute. I had to gauge the students' interests from week to week; improvisational freedom was essential.

As the semester began to wind down, it dawned on me that my connective attempts may have been unorthodox for a traditional survey, but they were still staged by me. I couldn't help to wonder what narrative connections the students may be constructing left to their own devices. Then, on October 31st, Studs Terkel passed away. Among other memorials, This American Life (Episode 368, Nov. 7, 2008) transmitted some of Terkel's interviews from the Hard Times radio project. Perhaps as a tribute to the pioneering oral histories of Terkel, I decided that it was time to cross another boundary; this was not a temporal boundary (linking past and present) but a reversal of story-telling. I decided to record my students' thoughts directly. I picked two students and asked them if they were willing to tell their stories on a voice recorder. If I had thought of this earlier, I could have recroded many more students, thus, providing a more representative sample. Instead, my selection was highly motivated; basically, I picked two students who publicly exhibited a clear interface between the history of art and architecture and their personal lives. Both agreed to have their identities revealed and in the next few weeks, I hope to publish their interviews on this blog. Although I am not aware of any other such projects, I hope this becomes an academic StoryCorps.

The first student, Spencer Sutton, is a studio-arts major who is also an afficionado of alternative rock music. I learned this only from the punk rock buttons pinned on Spencer's book bag; the buttons became conversation starters. The second student, MM, is an architectural studies major with a love for Frank Lloyd Wright. This love became physically manifest on her skin when, last summer, MM got a tattoo of a Wright window pattern on her back. In my interview, I tried to get a portrait of that connection between art and life. So stay tuned. Before the fun starts, I must finish grading.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States